The Origin of Politics: Sophocles, “Oedipus at Colonus”

Nearly all the observations in this post are adapted from Seth Benardete’s essay “On Greek Tragedy,” cited below. Parenthetical references that are only numbers are line numbers.

1. Oedipus’ crimes of incest and parricide have been revealed. His eyes are gone, he has been exiled from the city. With his daughter Antigone, he trespasses on sacred ground (Colonus) outside of Athens. The inhabitants try to shoo him away. An appeal to Theseus, the ruler of Athens, wins him the right to live and die outside of Athens. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, brings news during all this that the sons of Oedipus are fighting for control of Thebes, and that an oracle warns them that Oedipus’ tomb will cause them trouble. More specifically, they will run up against it later in some way. They want Oedipus back near Thebes to know where exactly it will be. Creon, claiming to be sent by all the citizens, tries to persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes. His pleas are rejected and he kidnaps Oedipus’ daughters to force Oedipus’ hand. Theseus rescues the daughters; Creon is sent back to Thebes. Polynices, Oedipus’ elder son, is denied the right of kingship by his brother. He asks for an audience with Oedipus so as to bless his expedition against Thebes. Oedipus curses him and his brother, wishing both will die at each others’ hands. Polynices goes away to fight for what he believes is his right, for it is unmanly to back down now. Finally, Oedipus performs a purification ritual of some sort and is whisked away – no one knows where he goes to. Only Theseus was permitted such knowledge, if it was to be had.

2. It seems like this is a drama meant to unite a number of loose threads from the other two Theban plays, although it is between Oedipus Tyrannus (preceding) and Antigone (concluding). The summary I have given above tends to sprawl, not coincidentally because of the plot. I propose we use a political lens to view the play. Oedipus Tyrannus concerns the impiety characteristic of tyranny, with a twist: there is a kind of innocence involved, a willful lack of self-knowledge as action alone seems to produce the human good. Antigone is about the conflict between the divine law and convention, and how the divine law is radically more powerful than one can see. Creon deeply understands the problem of family, and proposes not burying Polynices so as to effect a solution that will benefit both the city and his own family. Unfortunately, Antigone feels so strongly that she is literally in love with death. “Anti-gone” means “anti-generation;” the family she defends so passionately is one that never should have existed, as it is entirely incestuous. Oedipus at Colonus has to bridge these two plays and help make them come to light fully. Antigone herself symbolizes something, but while easy to see the sort of character she is, it is very hard to make sense of her. Oedipus himself is a most difficult character. First he was a king/tyrant; in this play, he wants to be an oracle.

3. The riddle of Oedipus at Colonus is place. Oedipus, between Thebes and Athens, is somewhere himself. He asks Antigone what city they have come to open the play. A few lines later, Antigone tells him that she knows they are near Athens, and Oedipus says “the people on the road told us that much” (22-25). Oedipus is a doddering old man, certainly. But there are still more riddles. Antigone tells him where he wants to sit is sacred (l. 14-20). Oedipus himself has said he wants to rest “near ground unconsecrated or near the precincts of the gods” (9 ff.). And yet he still sits down on the rock, and fights with the peasant who comes along saying that he is violating sacred ground.

Oedipus wants to be something. He asks if the place he stops can be lived in (25-30). He prays to the Eumenides, the goddesses of vengeance. All throughout the play he is “monstrous” (David Grene’s term) both in appearance and in how he acts. He constantly forecasts doom for those who have wronged him, and even his acts of paternal love toward his daughters feel accompanied by some kind of delusional grandeur. His gift to Theseus, which seems to involve him being some sort of spirit of vengeance against Thebes should Thebes ever fight Athens, means that his daughters cannot pay respect at his grave. The thorny question that I cannot make head or tail of, at the moment: how could someone so polluted be god-sent? His power does seem divine at the end of the play, perhaps greater than divine. How did the tyrant become the oracle?

4. I think the answer “well, Oedipus was always a riddle unto himself” (oracles speak in riddles; Oedipus was most certainly a riddle in Oedipus Tyrannus) is too glib. Using a political lens means identifying an actual problem, one that can be readily explained. If this is about place, why is he at Colonus? We have to put aside entirely how politics and religion work after the advent of monotheism. Nowadays, there is either separation of church and state, and the possible equation of church and state of previous ages. With polytheism, things are very different. Piety has roots literally grounded in the earth. Some people – like the Thebans – have legends that their ancestors sprung from the ground. This would mean that one’s defense of the very ground one lived on was a religious and political duty. There is nothing like this even in the Middle Ages: the Crusades were triggered because of a recognition that there was another religion that had places one considered sacred. The very concept of “other gods” can be both intrinsic to and completely alien from polytheism. It is intrinsic once one recognizes another people. But why would one recognize another people? Why go anywhere? God gave you this land, where your ancestors were born and buried.

5. Much is implied about Colonus, but little is said explicitly. Despite some indications (the sacred grove itself is completely uninhabited), we learn that Colonus consists of a people (78). That people is both a part of Athens and separate from Athens:

…Oedipus’ defiance now shakes the native’s confidence; he decides not to expel Oedipus “apart from the city.” What city? it cannot be Athens, for the inhabitants of Colonus have total control over this place (78). Is Colonus then a city too? If it is, then the situation into which Oedipus has stumbled must occur shortly after Theseus had consolidated all of Attica under the sovereignty of Athens, when the country towns were stripped of their political independence but their sacred places were left intact (Benardete 111).

Now the political problem, if I am correct, should be relatively clear. Colonus has its own gods. Should it not be completely independent until the end of time? In our cheap “America is not an empire, but a republic” rhetoric, we tend to forget that sometimes (obviously, not always) people engage in wars for just causes, i.e. for the sake of justice. They tend to rule other people sometimes not because they like oppressing people but because threats arise that more strength can help fight. In the context of the polytheism described, Athenian piety needs to be peaceably reconciled with Colonus’ piety for any sort of merger. But this is not a matter of pointing to a universal conception of god; each society might have a wholly different set of gods. To point to a general concept like justice or fear as basis for the union, again, requires going through the specific gods involved. As outlined above, we might be dealing with a people who see no need to even deal with another people.

6. Hence, Oedipus: blind, he is also a stranger-citizen (Benardete 113, lines 637-38). Even in his impious act of violating sacred ground, he is begging for mercy as a guest/stranger, as a suppliant. Ironically enough, the most general outlines of piety of any sort give Oedipus standing. Even if one is sprung fully grown from the earth, it cannot make much sense to kill strangers. It is Oedipus’ citizenship that becomes an issue. He is a citizen of Thebes. Creon is exactly right within convention to demand he come back and not give Athens a power of protection from Thebes. Creon is acting conventionally in defense of his people. Polynices, later, is acting in accordance with convention: manliness and customary guidelines for succession mean that he should go fight his city to get it back.

All Greek tragedy, I think, is where a divine law that gives sanction to the everyday life of the city reemerges with a vengeance. What is unseen are the divine – not earthly – tensions that underlie everyday life. It’s easy to say Oedipus was impious. It’s a lot harder to recognize that man should want power, should want to be free of the gods as much as he can. Isn’t it a proverb that god helps those who help themselves? Oedipus, at least in Oedipus Tyrannus, isn’t the problem. The problem is the bridge between the divine and human.

I’m not clear that Thebes and Athens in this play are established, stable political orders. There are customs which govern them, and Athens has a near perfect ruler in Theseus (I wonder if Euripides is taking apart this particular portrait of Theseus in the Hippolytus). But customs are not the same thing as a united people and good governance which persist beyond one ruler. Customs aren’t the same thing as settled law and working well with other nations. All politics has a tyrannical element in that it wills something and demands it gets done. That’s the oracle Oedipus is. He brings with him the problem of injustice that forces the citizens of Colonus to cry out on his behalf – they witness Creon take his daughters. And they witness Theseus bring them back. They see the literal instantiation of justice in another, and that action, a step towards empire, is actually the foundation of politics.

There is, quite obviously, an incredible darkness to this teaching. Oedipus has to disappear: this is the gift he gave, the silent but wholly legitimate governance of another people. His disappearance makes all the land of Colonus sacred (i.e. untouchable to others, making even the inhabitants impious), and Theseus the keeper of the knowledge of how it is sacred (Benardete 112). His vengeance makes him oracular; inasmuch as he brings with him injustice, he brings with him the certainty of punishment. That certainty – that injustice collapses because of its failure to be properly political – marks his own sons fatally. It marks Creon in the most ironic and tragic of ways. And while Theseus comes off as a perfect ruler in this play, we know – as did Sophocles’ audience – that he was a thug who pretty much murdered his own father. Still, the stability that marks politics is not to be taken for granted. Oedipus proclaims himself “content” to open the play (Benardete 109). The Chorus toward the end of the play, not properly citizens yet, proclaims that never to have been is best (Benardete 109, line 1220).


Benardete, Seth. “On Greek Tragedy.” The Argument of the Action. ed. Burger and Davis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 99-143

1 Comment

  1. I think most wars are caused by too much sexual frustration. It’s really that simple. People say “justice”, or fighting for a cause, but subconsciously it’s because they can’t get the sex they want.

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